Inside the Ropes – HP Byron Nelson Championship
By TOM LaMARRE
The Sports Xchange
Inside the Ropes HP Byron Nelson Championship – In 2011, Keegan Bradley ended an American drought of six majors without a victory by winning the PGA Championship. Last year, Bubba Watson captured the Masters and Webb Simpson claimed the U.S. Open title, and for all three it was the first majors championship of their careers. It might be Matt Kuchar’s turn, perhaps as soon as next month in the U.S. Open at Merion. “I think the more comfortable you get winning tournaments, I’ve now got five wins, and I’d like to continue that going,” said the 34-year-old Kuchar, who is playing this week in the HP Byron Nelson Championship after a disappointing tie for 48th in his title defense at the Players Championship. “Majors are certainly on my radar. I think all of us try to peak for major championships. Everybody wants to get their game in the best shape possible for majors.
” … I would like to kind of be ‘on’ with regularity and play well week-in and week-out, and I felt like that was the best preparation and just continue playing well and let that carry into major championships and just keep the good play going.” The upward turn of Kooch’s career since 2009 reads like a roadmap heading toward a major championship. Kuchar ended a seven-year non-winning streak by winning the 2009 Turning Stone Resort Championship during the Fall Series and things took off from there. The following year, he captured the Barclays to open the PGA Tour playoffs for the FedEx Cup, followed by victories last year in the Players Championship and earlier this season in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, where he beat defending champion Hunter Mahan in the final. Not only has he shown he can win the big tournaments, he leads the PGA Tour with 33 top-10 finishes in the last three-plus seasons.
“I’ve always thought you were supposed to take the appropriate steps to get to the next level,” said Kuchar, whose brilliant amateur career included a victory in the 1997 United States Amateur. “I’ve always thought that like in school, you kind of graduate elementary school, get to middle school, you graduate middle school and get to high school and then college, and those are the steps you take. You don’t jump straight into college and you don’t jump straight into advance placement courses. You kind of take these little steps to get there. “I thought the same was applicable with golf. I felt like you kind of start playing well, you start top-10’ing, you start having a lot of chances, and then you win a tournament. Then you start doing the same in bigger tournaments. You start having better and better results, and you take those steps and feel more and more comfortable in the big tournaments, majors included, and I fell like I’ve made the right progressions. “I’ve been pleased at kind of the trajectory of my career the last couple years.” That Kuchar, who has been in or near the top 10 in the World Golf Rankings the last few years, has become a major player is no surprise to anyone who saw him play during a brilliant amateur career.
After claiming that U.S. Amateur title at Cog Hill Golf and Country Club outside of Chicago, he earned the 1998 Haskins Award as college player of the Year as a sophomore at Georgia Tech and finished as low amateur in the Masters and the U.S. Open that year. Kuchar earned six titles for the Yellow Jackets before his graduation in 2000 in business management, before he briefly took a job in finance to have something to fall back on, just in case. All it did was help him know what to do with his money once he turned pro. In 2001, he earned his PGA Tour card without going to qualifying school by making $572,669 in six tournaments, including a tie for second in the Texas Open at La Cantera and a tie for third in the Air Canada Championship. Kuchar broke through for his first victory on the circuit in the 2002 Honda Classic, and then … almost nothing, for nearly seven years. “Golf is a difficult and humbling game,” the 6-foot-4 Kuchar said of how it brought even a big man like him to his knees. “I think it’s gotten the best of everybody at times. So it was at times very frustrating. I think it’s one of those things, even when you’re playing great, the game of golf can still bring you right back down and humble you pretty quickly.” … Yeah, there were times I felt like I was going to have a hard time fighting my way back and fortunately with my work with (instructor) Chris O’Connell, it’s really been this upward climb where I feel like there’s still a lot of improvements we can make. I feel like we’ve made a great deal of improvements and I feel like there’s still a lot of room to get better.”
Kuchar turned to O’Connell in 2006, when he also went back to what was then the Nationwide (now the Buy.com) Tour and re-learned what it was like to compete and win. He captured the Henrio County Open and finished second in the Preferred Health Systems Wichita Open and the Nationwide Tour Championship. It restored the upward momentum of his career and he has taken it to new heights by finishing in the top 10 in the majors five times in the last four seasons, including ties for third and eighth the last two years in the Masters. But he’s not simply thinking about winning a major. Said Kooch: “I’m certainly looking forward to contending more in majors and hopefully getting my chance to win a couple.” Once he breaks through, it might be as simple as one-two-three.